Much like vinyl, âanalogâ technology is held in high regard, but debate rages around the realities of its leased properties. More than 50 years after the arrival of the first consumer analog synthesizer on the market, their basic format is more widespread than ever.
Do analog synths really sound better? What is it that keeps this theoretically outdated technology so popular in the supposedly avant-garde arena of electronic music creation?
There are some things that only software and digital synthesizers can do, like complex frequency modulation, granular or wavetable synthesis. In theory at least, there isn’t much an analog synthesizer can do that can’t be reproduced in the digital realm.
Countless virtual analog instruments provide exact replicas of classic synth engines, often providing added convenience through increased number of voices, full parameter recall, and – in hardware – a more convenient form factor. So why would anyone bother with an analog synth?
The reality, of course, is not that simple. Analog synths are still popular with a multitude of electronic musicians. In fact, with the rise of affordable analog instruments and modular Eurorack synthesis, true analog synths have become considerably more accessible and prevalent over the past decade.
We put the question of the longevity of analog to synth designer / enthusiast Tom Carpenter, of the British brand Analogue Solutions. âImagine painting a picture, but your easel is at the end of a long hallway and you have to handle the brush from the outside, through the letterbox, using very long tweezers,â he explains. he, when asked about his adversity to software synthesizers. âMany physical digital hardware synths aren’t much better either. For me, if I have to go down even one level in a menu, it’s done.
This physicality is something that is regularly cited as a main draw of analog synths. While digital hardware, of course, also offers an element of convenient interactivity, the tactics of adjusting knobs and faders on a voltage-controlled instrument can be difficult to emulate. This becomes even more true in semi-modular and modular fields, where the physical connection of control voltages (CVs) provides not only practical interaction, but an element of unpredictability. CV signals can create “happy accidents” in an unlikely way in digital synths.
When it comes to analog synth design, few can match Dave Smith’s career. His original brand Sequential Circuits was the source of some of the most influential instruments of the 70s and 80s, such as the Pro One and the Prophet-5, and since his return to the market with Dave Smith Instruments in 2005 (now at renamed Sequential), he’s also created some of the most beloved synths of the 21st century. For him, the appeal of analog comes down to sound.
âThey sound better! He tells us. âI keep getting artists who tell me how good they sound. They are also much more fun and interactive to play; they feel like a musical instrument should do it. I could talk about all the intricacies of analog circuitry, but just use your ears.
While Analogue Solutions, as the brand name suggests, has stuck pretty strictly to analog circuitry in designing their synths, Smith’s DSI and Sequential brands have dabbled in digital technology on a number of occasions. In the late 2000s, Dave Smith Instruments began outfitting synths with DCO – digitally controlled oscillators that deliver analog sound with a more stable setting.
The newer Prophet-6 takes it a step further with the inclusion of a full wavetable oscillator and digital synthesizer engine. We asked Smith if he now thinks there is a perfect âmiddle groundâ where digital elements can sit alongside analog.
âSure. Technology has come a long way since I designed the Prophet-5 in 1977,â he explains. âWe take advantage of it. The sweet spot depends on the design of the instrument. Sometimes we use a digital oscillator or wavetable oscillator, sometimes VCOs, sometimes a mix. The most critical part is the filter; we always use analog filters. Other controls like modulation, LFOs and envelopes are best done digitally these days, for a number of reasons.
Fall and climb
The consensus on analog synths, however, has not been a constant over the past 50 years, as another icon of synth design, Tom Oberheim in 2019 explained to us, well and his first company went bankrupt. Everything was going digital. The Yamaha DX7 started the digital revolution in 1983, then there was the Korg M1 and the Roland D50, so analog was pretty much dead.
“It became a different world, people wanted perfect strings, perfect brass and a Fender Rhodes that didn’t weigh 200 pounds.” Oberheim attributes modern dance music and the Eurorack community to the greatest promoters of the analog revival.
âTwo things happened when the new century arrived. Dave Smith returned to the business in 2005, but the other thing was this growing monster called Eurorack. Thanks to the dancing crowd and the Eurorack crowd, analog is back and better than ever. It was a bumpy ride for someone like me who had been so involved. I was the second generation – the first generation was Bob Moog and Donald Buchla, but here we are and the synths are back thanks in large part to the dance producers.
How does the process of creating analog instruments differ from a designer’s perspective today compared to the 1970s? âIn general the design is easier since the design tools are much better now,â Smith tells us. âSome older components were brought back, like the Curtis parts made by OnChip, Doug’s company, used in the Prophet-5. Other parts are difficult or impossible to find, so we find alternative parts with the same analog flavor.
Tom Carpenter also sees some bright spots compared to when he formed Analogue Solutions in the mid-90s. âIt’s easier in a way – I have over 25 years of experience now, and don’t forget that this not only covers synth design, but also running a business and manufacturing. It takes knowledge of sheet metal, printing, packaging. Also shipping, tax laws and all aspects of running a business. But those 25+ years means every product evolves like me, adding more adventurous features.
For many reasons however, both designers point out how difficult the current climate is. âIt’s getting more and more difficult,â Carpenter tells us. “The main reason is skyrocketing costs due to inflation and global supply issues.” âOver the past year, all integrated circuits have been hard to find and costs have increased dramatically,â says Smith.
Pretend until you do
What does the threat look like from a digital perspective? Are emulations about to eclipse the need for authentic circuits? Even devout believer Tom Carpenter admits they’ve come a long way. âMany sound ‘the same’ on a blind test. Is the instrument used important as long as the song is good? Maybe not.”
The appeal of analog is not dead, however. âPersonally, I’m not happy to use a fake,â he tells us. “A ‘clone’ of a synth is not the original.”
Dave Smith is more dismissive. âI haven’t tried one for many years,â he tells us. âI guess they got better, although for me it’s all about the look and feel. I would much prefer to be in front of a hardware synth with a set of knobs that never change or move. It’s about interacting with a real musical instrument.
What makes analog effects so special?
It is not only in the field of synths that analog circuits are in demand. What does vintage effects technology have to offer compared to high end plugins?
Talking about âanalogâ in the effects realm is a little different from talking about synths. We often talk about analog material that has “character”, which is usually always a good thing in a synth, but not necessarily in an effect. Sure, there are a lot of creative effects that give our music a certain sound, but some mixing and mastering tools are best when they’re transparent – they do their job without us really knowing they’re there.
The physical aspect is also less of an issue, because while some effects are great to manipulate by hand – tweaking a live filter, for example – in many cases the state saving and automation available in the software are much more desirable. However, there are certain types of effects that still work best in the analog domain. Let’s take a look at some notable examples.
Analog compressors come in a variety of forms, but they tend to be liked for the characteristic way they respond to signals, especially when “pushed”. A lot of it comes down to saturation – applying subtle overtones for a âhi-fiâ glow. This can have the effect of “sticking” the sounds together. For a modern and inexpensive option, try the new Volt interfaces equipped with UA FETs.
Tape recorders / retarders are still sought after for their distinctive but often desirable unreliability. This translates to “wow” and “flutter” – subtle modulations in the speed and pitch of the audio. The bands also impart distinctive distortion and tend to lose high content to create a “darker” sound. To hook up the analog tone without breaking the bank, get a cheap tape recorder and bounce your audio for authentic tape effects.
The channel strips of classic mixing consoles combined amplification, EQ and compression, each of which could impart a distinct character. These can be perfect for gluing bus channels together adding a subtle “warm” saturation and unified character across multiple elements. SSL’s SiX Mixer offers authentic analog channel strips at an affordable price.